I’ll be upfront with you; I’m not going to review Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Inferno and Rurouni Kenshin: The Legend Ends separately. Considering how close together their theatrical releases in Japan were, it could be argued they’re just one film with about a month long intermission (if you’re old enough to remember those). Also considering the cliff-hanger Kyoto Inferno ends on Empire Strikes Back style I’d also run a much bigger risk of spoiling far too many things if I tried to look at them individually. So, before you read on, keep that in mind – pretty much everything I’m about to say applies to both films in equal measure.
Rurouni Kenshin has enjoyed a long and well respected run. The manga was of course first published in 1994 and the anime shortly thereafter enjoyed 2 years on air before it finished. The animated film period saw a number of releases also, perhaps the most popular of which darker, more serious 4-episode OVA duology Trust & Betrayal and Reflection, which focused more on Kenshin’s backstory and garnered the title a strong resurgence of interest in 1999. So the time has been long since ripe for a live action movie (or three) and the risk was always there that this new incarnation would, like so many other live action films, merely regurgitate without adding any depth to the title. That fear was wholly and thoroughly alleviated however with the first film in 2011, in no small way due to the charismatic lead Takeru Satoh (Goemon, Real).
There was probably never any fear that the producers could repeat their success after that. With all the material they had to draw from, all they really needed to do was more of the same, and what they did the first time was make a damn good film with a sense of excellent balance between the action, the character development, the back story, and the villains. Apparently that wasn’t enough though, because the second and third films together are something more, something grittier, meatier, than the first film. These two films are also fine examples of what good actors can do with a good script and while Satoh continues to dazzle in the role, the real kudos absolutely have to go to Tatsuya Fujiwara (Death Note, Shield of Straw) who is so believable and compelling as supervillain Shisho that it’s impossible to imagine anyone else doing a better job.
Kyoto Inferno opens with a flashback to that critical moment of the Shogun’s final defeat where Kenshin’s work was done and he vowed to never kill again. Like Kenshin, Shisho was a military weapon fighting for the Restoration, but unlike Kenshin, he doesn’t want the bloodshed to end. Having reached the end of his usefulness however, he is betrayed by the very people who made him and left to perish in a fiery pile of corpses. Of course he doesn’t, and, well, when he finally drags himself off to wherever seriously betrayed, leftfordead villains go to heal and plan, annoyed doesn’t even begin to cover it.
And there is basically your entire plot vehicle for both films, which is not a criticism at all. Shisho’s plans for vengeance are excessive to be sure, but that excessiveness seems totally logical in the context of political transition between Shogunruled isolationist Japan and the modern world that’s been developing outside the country’s borders for so long. Soldiers in western uniforms brandishing feudal period weapons and bandits in kimonos pointing guns at people is a surreal picture when you really think about it, so a burning parade float or a giant steel warship, and all the melodrama that goes with it, just isn’t all that out of place.
The fighting in this film is, to state the obvious, absolutely amazing. It’s what you might expect if you’d ever tried to picture how real life fight choreography would have to be arranged in order to achieve the kinds of tricks you normally only see in anime. One minute, Satoh looks like he’s only waving his sword around and ducking and then, lightning fast, you realise he’s hit his target three times in about four seconds. Whatever special effects they’ve used in filming these scenes, they’re practically invisible and a great deal has obviously gone into making these clashes look as realistic as possible.
Secondary character development, as you’d also perhaps expect, is a little less breathtaking; between Satoh and Fujiwara, there’s not really much room left for anyone else. Emi Takei as dojo owner Kaoru shone in the first film, and does an admirable job in Inferno, but her role in Legend really just amounts to following Kenshin around the country and crying out his name. Munetaka Aoki (Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai) as Sanosuke provides some arguably unnecessary comic relief but doesn’t do much else, and Yuusukei Iseya (Sukiyaki Western Django, Thirteen Assassins) does more with his role as ex-ninja Shinomori Aoshi than one might think possible, given he’s limited to the line “Where is the Battousai?”. Yosuke Eguchi (April Story, Goemon) as Hajime Saito just gets to smoke a lot.
Not that the host of characters that spans the two films are superfluous; everyone who gets a decent amount of screen time gets it for a reason, and at no point does the script feel like its losing its way. Everything remains focused towards one end and actually that is not necessarily Shisho’s defeat by Kenshin. The appeal of these films, and of the title too no matter what the medium, is actually all about Kenshin’s battle with his past and his resolution to never kill again. With a strong antagonist pushing that resolution, with two highly capable and charismatic actors in the lead roles, with superb choreography, some great cinematography and a really outstanding musical score, Kyoto Inferno and The Legend Ends are both living, breathing proof that live action can be every bit – and even more – exciting than its animated sibling, so much so that you’ll seriously want to watch them again almost before the credits have rolled.
The Rurouni Kenshin trilogy is
the highlight of— ehem — screening as part of the Japanese Film Festival doing the rounds of the country October to December 2014. Check the website for cities and session times. Although if you haven’t got a ticket for the RK films yet… well, you may have to wait until they’re out on Blu-ray!